Bonnie Brooks Should Not Have Been a Keynote Speaker at OLA

About three weeks ago, Bonnie Brooks, the Vice Chairman of the Hudson’s Bay Company, presented a keynote at the OLA Super Conference. She was articulate, personable, and inspiring. By all accounts, she is a very successful businessperson and she has done wonderful things for the business prospects of the Bay.

It’s clear that she has done wonderful things, because during her talk she described, in detail, how through her leadership HBC has capitalized on its rich history to become a luxury goods retailer. Louboutins, Top Shop, and fur coats were mentioned.

None of this explains what she was doing at the largest library conference in Canada.

Libraries are not Ms. Brooks’ forte. Her speech was peppered with statements like: “I understand that libraries” and “probably like your libraries.” At no point did she make a claim along the lines of “from my years of experience working in a library” or “let me discuss the finer points of reference work.” She isn’t a librarian. She doesn’t know about libraries. She knows about business, and that’s what she spoke about.

 “probably like your libraries.”

We at the London Chapter of the Progressive Librarians Guild have a problem with this. Libraries and businesses are not the same. Businesses exist to make a profit. Libraries exist to provide access to information for their patrons. For public libraries, serving this patron base ultimately means serving the public good.

The Ethos of these fields are starkly different.

For instance, Brooks spoke at length about the importance of customer service. Leaving aside for a moment that The Bay has the worst customer service in the world, customer service, for businesses, is a means to an end. It’s a way to become better than other businesses, have more return customers, and make a profit. However sincerely businesses serve customers, they’re ultimately in it for that filthy, filthy lucre. And that’s okay, because they’re businesses and that’s what businesses do.

By contrast, libraries don’t have customers. They don’t turn a profit. They don’t exist to make money. They have patrons, and services, and materials for use. Their purpose in providing good “customer service” (if I have to call it that) is to better serve patrons and facilitate information access. In other words, service in the library context doesn’t serve an ultimate goal. It is the ultimate goal.

It’s worth asking: just because businesses operate differently, does that mean that we can’t compare what libraries and businesses do? Of course we can compare them! But any comparisons need to acknowledge their differences.

Businesses and libraries are fundamentally different creatures.

There is a dangerous tendency in the library world to conflate the two. We librarians tend to slavishly adore business practices and business leaders. It’s the neo-liberal way of thinking that business-knows-best.

When Bonnie Brooks spoke at OLA, she didn’t make comparisons between libraries and businesses. She didn’t acknowledge the vast sea of difference between them. Instead, she spoke about her knowledge and her experiences. Surely many of the librarians in the crowd had the sense to say to themselves as she spoke: “this could be relevant to libraries if we modify it a bit. Less luxury, more story time.”

We’re certain, though, that many listeners didn’t have this filter. After listening to Ms. Brooks they began imagining their libraries as malformed department stores to be fixed with business tactics.

And it isn’t difficult to see why some listeners could come away with that idea. Bonnie Brooks was given a stage, a podium, and a packed room. She was given two introductions, one of which was by Guy Berthiaume, the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Her face was displayed on twin screens while she spoke, in the manner of your favourite rock band at a crowded concert, or Big Brother himself.

In other words, she was treated like a hero.

But, business people should not be our heroes. Our heroes should be librarians: people who have enabled the spread of knowledge. Our keynote speakers should be librarians, or at the least experts to whom librarians can directly relate. Our voices of inspiration should share the same librarian values as every library professional, because those values mean something. If business leaders are invited to speak, they should supplement major talks, not give them.

Have we mentioned yet that Bonnie Brooks brought up the nonsense term “synergies”?

Bonnie Brooks should never have been an OLA keynote speaker.


A Concerned Member of PLG London.

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